In Memoriam: William Louis-Dreyfus

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We are grieved at the loss of William Louis-Dreyfus, the noted businessman, philanthropist, art collector, and poet who died on September 16, 2016. William was a staunch friend to the ALSCW. In the past decade he hosted quite a few of our literary “salons” in his apartment in New York City, where writers presented their work, discussion eddied, and wine flowed in the presence of noble works of art (including, I especially remember, a small flower painting by Fantin-Latour, and a landscape by Stanley Lewis). In 2012 William sponsored a memorable evening at Poets House for ALSCW, a panel discussion about “What Makes Poetry Good,”at which Paul Keegan spoke about Beckett’s French poems, Christopher Ricks discussed John Crowe Ransom’s critique of Hardy, and Jill Rosser spoke about Donne. In 2014, William made possible a series of three lectures in New York by Christopher Ricks, sumptuously presented and catered. He understood the Association’s ideals, and supported us materially and spiritually.

William Louis-Dreyfus was born in Paris in 1932 to a famously wealthy family. He attended Duke University and Duke Law School, practiced law for a while in New York, and entered the Louis Dreyfus firm in 1965. He started collecting art in his adolescence in Paris, often skipping classes in the lycée to browse in art galleries. This browsing turned into a life-long passion for art. His collection, at his death, includes works by Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet, and Helen Frankenthaler, as well as works by lesser known but powerful artists like Raymond Mason and Stanley Lewis, and “outsider” artists like Bill Traylor. William was a true collector, not an investor in art: he had a fine eye, chose everything for himself and out of love, stubbornly followed his own way and trusted his vision, and personally sought out the living artists whose work he admired.

William’s approach to philanthropy was similarly personal and passionate. He supported social services in his town just outside Manhattan, provided scholarships for minority students, and funded voter registration drives. He was incensed at the treatment of African Americans in this country, and in 2015 he donated the proceeds of his art collection (valued at somewhere between $10 and $50 million) to Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone educational initiative. In 2012, outraged at the moves to limit and suppress voting in this country, he published a full page ad in the New York Times calling on the wealthy to donate money to restore democracy: “A Call to Arms to the Wealthy to Protect the Right to Vote.” He donated $1 million to that cause.

And William was a serious poet and lover of poetry. He was Chairman of the Board of the Poetry Society of America from 1998 to 2008. His own poems, much influenced by his beloved Robert Frost, were published in The Hudson Review, The New Criterion, and elsewhere. He left a completed manuscript of poems, Letters Written and Not Sent, which will no doubt find a publisher.

We mourn a friend and benefactor, a man for whom money was an instrument of the moral imagination. As John Berryman wrote in his Dream Song elegy for Robert Frost, “For a while here we possessed/ an unusual man.”

Rosanna Warren